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Gears of War 4 review: A reboot done right

The Gears of War franchise has, since the release of its first game, had a well-deserved place in the hall of fame for the Xbox. Not only was Gears of War a solid game in its own right, but it brought to the table a compelling story, memorable characters, and unique gameplay mechanics that came to define the franchise and help it find its legs later on.

It’s been 3 years now since Gears of War: Judgement (a prequel) released, and it’s been 5 years since Gears of War 3 ended the story proper. With so many fans itching to get back into the franchise, Gears of War 4 had very big expectations to meet.  While there were certainly some missteps along the way, the newest entry to this beloved franchise manages to be a worthy successor to the trilogy that came before it.

New gears, old war

Fans of the franchise are going to feel right at home when it comes to Gears of War 4’s combat system. Timed reloads are still very much a huge part of playing effectively, cover is still elegantly scattered throughout each mission, and you’re still making liberal use of the Y button to direct your camera to whatever set piece is going on while you’re busy cutting down monsters.

You’ll also find that your favorite weapons have all made a comeback, and they feel the same as you remember. The Lancer, Gnasher, and other classic weapons are all ready to go, and they’re also joined by new arrivals that definitely have a spark of creativity that change up the battlefield. The Buzzkill, for instance, fires off sawblades that ricochet off of walls and slice up enemies. You’ll also be able to use the Dropshot (a personal favorite) which lets you hold the trigger to fire off a forward-travelling marker, and release the trigger to unleash a devastating explosion wherever that marker is.

Kait Knife Battle

Pulling out your knife for a Yank ‘n Shank feels sufficiently vicious

That’s not to say that nothing new was added to the formula. One of the most interesting new mechanics is one that lets you reach over cover and grab an enemy on the other side, which you can then follow up with an execution move (this maneuver is aptly called the “Yank ‘n Shank”. You can do the same execution if you vault over cover and land on an enemy, letting the mechanic be used both offensively and defensively. It’s not much, but it gives you the option to play with cover when you’re just too close to get a shot off with your weapon.

A serviceable story

Gears of War’s story has had its ups and downs in the past, and Gears of War 4’s narrative seems to be stuck somewhere in between the franchise’s best and worst. Put simply, the story serves its purpose as a vehicle for delivering exceptional map design and exceptionally well-polished gameplay. If you’re looking for characters and events that you can truly latch onto for a substantial experience, however, you’re going to find a mixed bag.

The biggest problem that the game’s story has is that it revolves around one thing, and one thing alone: The main character. JD, who happens to be the son of Marcus Fenix, struck me as an incredibly bland character, devoid of any personality or motivation beyond the cookie-cutter snarky protagonist.

JD Close Up

JD does an alright job as the game’s protagonist

Don’t get me wrong – the snark works, and JD has some great chemistry with his teammates that, at times, resulted in lines that gave me a chuckle. JD’s problem lies in the fact that it’s so painfully obvious that he’s a character born out of a focus group, designed to have as little personality as possible in order to make him a protagonist that’s easier to sell to people. In an age where other games are becoming increasingly willing to take risks and give us protagonists that are memorable, Gears of War 4 seems to be stuck in the past.

If you’re willing to look past JD, there’s a lot of personality in the game that hits its mark pretty well. In fact, just about every character in the game other than the protagonist struck me as very likable. Kait and Del are the two main supporting characters in the game, and both of them carry their weight just fine. Kait in particular, has a very strong role in the story, and in my eyes was the true main character of Gears of War 4’s campaign.

All in all, going through this story is a blast if you can turn your brain off regarding some of its missteps. You get introduced to all of the game’s mechanics (including a few missions that are straight-out just Horde mode), you learn about the characters that you’ll be joining throughout the next games in the franchise, and you get a solid narrative foundation upon which The Coalition is going to be rebuilding Gears of War. The conclusion is going to leave you with a great many unanswered questions, but it sufficiently closes out the story arc that Gears of War 4 set out to tell.

The new and improved Horde mode

Horde mode. It’s a game type that was so well-done, so fun, so unique in its execution that, ever since it came out 8 years ago, every similar game mode that people came up with was compared to it. When Halo 3: ODST came out with Firefight, the mode was known to everyone as “Horde, but in Halo.” When Killing Floor started gaining popularity, many fans sold it as “Horde mode, but with zombies.” Suffice it to say, nailing Horde 3.0 was an absolute necessity for Gears of War 4 to hit its mark as a game.

And by God, they did it.

For those unfamiliar with Horde mode, the basic rundown is this: you and some friends are plopped into a map, and you need to survive waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Starting in Gears of War 3, you were able to select a few locations on the map to build fortifications on, letting you plop down some turrets and barriers to better fortify yourself. In Horde 3.0 (The official name for the mode in Gears of War 4), The Coalition takes all of the best concepts of Horde and makes them a hundred times better.

Gears Carrier

There are some considerably monstrous enemies in Horde 3.0’s boss rounds

I was brought into a session with a few other journalists and a developer from The Coalition to play an hour and a half of Horde mode, and can honestly say it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in Gears of War – and that’s coming from a long time fan. You’d think that not much can be done to shake up the formula of something like Horde mode. but it felt almost like a completely different game. The changes made for this iteration make Horde feel less like a tower-defense game and more like a hyper-violent Minecraft.

Whereas in Horde 2.0 you had to select a command center and put down fortifications in very specific locations, Horde 3.0 says that the only limit to your fortifications is your imagination (and resources). Rather than select a set command center, you can carry around the “Fabricator” (where you’ll be creating all of your weapons and fortifications) wherever you want to, whenever you want to. Think that your team is better off in another choke point next round? Just pick up your fabricator and go.

Following the same free-form principle, every single fortification in the game can be placed pretty much wherever you want. Instead of restricting you to a few locations, the new system lets you put down your new toy anywhere that isn’t obstructed by cover, or another fortification. This can make for absolutely ridiculous defensive setups sometimes, as you can – if you want to – just put five massive turrets all set up in one line and have them eviscerate anything that walks in your general direction. You’ll almost definitely be killed doing this on higher difficulties as they require some strategic fortification, but it’s still fun.

You’ll also find that Horde 3.0 handles energy (which lets you build fortifications) in a different way than its predecessor. Killing an enemy doesn’t give you resources anymore – not straight away, anyways. A killed enemy will drop energy, and one of your teammates is going to have to walk out to collect that energy, then run back to the Fabricator to store it in your group’s energy bank so that it can be used to build something.

Perhaps the biggest curveball to come out of the new Horde mode is the class system. When you start a game of Horde, you can select one of five classes: Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper, and Engineer. They all do just about what you imagine they would do, and they do those things very well. Classes like the Soldier, Heavy, and Sniper are all built around doing damage in different ways – the Heavy and Sniper use explosives and long-range weapons respectively, while the soldier is a master of dealing damage as a jack of all trades. The Scout and the Engineer might be the most interesting, offering players a chance to bring some true utility to their team. The Scout gets double energy when they collect energy drops from dead enemies, and the Engineer gets access to a repair tool which can spruce up your damaged fortifications for the next wave. 

Kait Close Up

Just like in Versus, you can change your playable character in Horde 3.0

Horde 3.0 is insane and reminded me just how much I missed having Horde around. Every change made to the game mode feels like it’s a natural progression and not just something that was tacked on for the sake of making a gimmick. If you were ever a fan of Horde and you have some friends who would play with you on the regular, I would almost be willing to say that Gears of War 4 is worth picking up for Horde 3.0 alone.

Taking a good shot at eSports

I wasn’t expecting to like Versus mode in Gears of War 4 nearly as much as I did. I was aware from the beginning of my session that The Coalition and Microsoft intended to make a push for eSports viability in the latest Gears of War installment, and, as a very big fan of eSports (primarily League of Legends), I was completely unconvinced that they could expand from their current niche. After my hands-on session with 5v5, however, I think much differently.

I played three different game modes during my playtime: Arms Race, Dodgeball, and Escalation. Inspired by Counter Strike’s “Gun Game,” Arms Race is a fairly fun 5v5 game mode which has teams switching weapons after every 3 team kills until one team has gotten three kills on the final weapon. Dodgeball, on the other hand, is a spin on the classic elimination game mode. If you die you stay dead – until somebody on your team gets a kill, at which point you’re tagged back in.

"Gears 4" Forge Multiplayer Map Outside View

Map design in Gears 4 is, more often than not, exceptional

I had a blast with both of those game modes, but it’s Escalation that really stuck with me. Escalation is a game mode that has teams competing for control of three zones on a map, with points on your team gradually accumulating depending on how many zones your team has captured at any given time. Here’s the catch, though: If at any time a team has control of all three zones, they win – regardless of how many points they had.

Escalation is a best-of-7 game mode, providing plenty of room for comebacks if you have a few rough rounds. It’s also enhanced by the fact that the placement of the zones is switched up halfway through the game, and teams get to choose where to place power weapons like the Torque Bow and Boomshot after each round. Escalation seems to be the game mode that The Coalition is counting on to become the main competitive home for Gears of War 4, and after my session with it, I can absolutely understand why.

Let me make something clear right off the bat: I, unfortunately, only got to experience one game of escalation during my session. This game, however, was the most heart-pounding, controller-tossing, fist-pumping competition I’ve had playing a console video game for many, many years. My game ended up coming down to one final blaze of glory round after both teams had gotten to 6 wins, and resulted in me audibly screaming and cheering in the middle of the night, quite possibly waking up my neighbors in the process.

If you’re rooting for Gears of War to make a name for itself in eSports, then you should get very excited about what Gears of War 4 has to offer. If The Coalition plays its cards right with this game, it has something potentially very special on its hands. There are certainly enough modes to keep casual gamers very happy with Gears of War 4’s variety, but the amount of thought put into making modes like Escalation competitively viable is very promising.

The glorious return of Gears of War

Gears of War 4 earns its place as a great entry into the Gears of War franchise, providing a solid campaign, the best Horde mode yet by a long shot, and a real gem of 5v5 versus multiplayer. While it most certainly does have issues with its narrative and some people may not like the optional micro-transaction system that lets you grab crates full of random cosmetics (don’t worry, these can be gotten gradually without spending any real life money),  the game is, without any shadow of a doubt, an excellent time.

Kait Mid Shot

Kait is a great character, and consistently carries the campaign

This managed to be one of the very few games to which I fully intend to play very often after I publish my review. After I did just one session of Horde, I frequently found myself coming back to get my Horde fix in a single-player private match, just constantly thinking to myself that I can’t wait for the game to go live so I have more people to play with. My time in 5v5 left me with much of the same hunger for more, lighting a competitive fire in me that console games haven’t touched for a long time.

If you’ve ever been a Gears of War fan and you have the money to spare, Gears of War 4 should be very highly considered as your next big game purchase. It has a little something for everybody and does everything exceptionally well. If you do decide to pick up the game when it finally comes out on October 11th, I look forward to meeting you in matchmaking some time.

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Are you going to pick up Gears of War 4?